Monday, April 15, 2013

Baptism and everyday rituals of life & death

Baptism and the Wide Expanse of Life
Benjamin M. Stewart

“Baptism into Christ demands enough water to die in,” Aidan Kavanagh famously wrote.[1] Many newer baptismal fonts have indeed recovered the dimensions of the tomb (as well as emulating the bodily scale of bathing pools, wells, fountains, and flowing streams).

But even as fonts have recovered the capacity of the grave as living bodies are baptized into the death of Christ, actual Christian graves have receded from view. Memorial services without the bodily presence of the deceased are common. Increasingly, the dead have been “banned from their own funerals,” writes Thomas Long.[2]

For all of the attention paid in the liturgical renewal movement to the recovery of fonts that can evoke the realities of the grave, Christians have paid little attention to the grave itself—a liturgical symbol of astonishing importance and rich baptismal significance in the lives of early Christians.

Christian interest in death and beyond has not waned, as Rob Bell’s and N.T. Wright’s rankings demonstrate. But how can the rich theology and practice of baptism extend to Christian ritual at death? Can our renewed and enlarged practice at the font expand our sense of baptismal living and dying?

Perhaps Christians can learn from other groups recovering stronger rituals at death, like the recovery of the chevra kadisha burial society among the Jewish community (pictured below[3]), and the practices of natural burial among the ecologically minded (pictured further below[4])?

Here’s a question to stir the waters: how can an expansive theology and practice of Christian baptism expand our everyday rituals of life—extending all the way to our ritual at the time of death?


 Rabbis teach the practice of ritual immersion as part of the care of bodies at death.

The assembly lowers a simple pine coffin into the ground at Ramsey Creek conservation burial ground.

Dr. Benjamin M. Stewart is Gordon A. Braatz Assistant Professor of Worship and Dean of Augustana Chapel, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He will be featured as one of our plenary speakers at our June 27-29 conference with NAAC in Chicago, “Stirring the Waters: Reclaiming the Missional Subversive Character of Baptism.”

To register online:

For more information:

The following is the description of Dr. Stewart’s plenary session:

Matters of Life and Death
The Christian life begins with an embodied act that St. Paul describes as a “burial with Christ” in baptism. The renewal of baptism, then, reconfigures our patterns of living and dying. We will explore ways in which baptism invites us to honor our earthly bodies, reorients us to death, and welcomes us into abundant life.  

[1] Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (New York: Pueblo, 1978), 179.
[2] Thomas Long, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 75.
[3] Photo by Michelle V. Agins, The New York Times. See Vitello, Paul. “Jewish Groups Revive Rituals of Caring for Dead.” The New York Times, December 12, 2010, sec. N.Y. / Region.
[4] Natural Burial at Ramsey Creek conservation burial ground, South Carolina.

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